The Battle of Swally, also known as the Battle of Suvali, was a naval warfare fought on 29 November 1612 off the coast of Suvali, a village near Surat city in Gujarat, India. The battle was fought between the British East India Company forces led by Captain Thomas Best and the Portuguese. The Battle of Swally ended with the victory of the British East India Company over the Portuguese. This small naval warfare is historically significant, as it marked the beginning of the ascent of the British East India Company’s presence in India.
Portuguese Monopoly Over Trade
- The Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit India in the late 15th century. In 1498, Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, discovered a new and all-sea route from Europe to India. He was the first European to reach India by sea and arrived on the Western sea coast of India at Calicut, Kerala.
- Under the Vice-royalty of Afonso de Albuquerque, who captured Goa in 1510, the Portuguese established their domination over the Asian Coast from Hormuz in the Persian Gulf to Malacca in Malaysia and the Spice Islands in Indonesia. They seized Indian territories on the coast and waged constant war to expand their trade and dominions and safeguard their trade monopoly from their European rivals.
- In the 16th century, European merchants also began the long process of penetrating and then subjecting Asian lands to their control. Portuguese had a monopoly over the highly profitable Eastern trade for nearly a century. Portugal set up its trading settlements at Cochin, Diu, and Goa. Their possession in India survived for a century because they enjoyed control over the high seas, and they did not have to face the might of the Mughal Empire, as South India was outside the Mughal influence.
- In the latter half of the 16th century, England and all other growing commercial and naval powers waged a fierce struggle against the Portuguese monopoly of global maritime trade.
Events leading to the Battle of Swally
- The Battle of Swally (1612) was also the result of the Portuguese monopoly over trade with India. The British merchants looked greedily at the Asian Trade. The success of the Portuguese, the rich cargoes of spices, silk, cotton, gold, pearls, drugs, porcelain and ebony they carried, and the high profits they made inflamed the imagination of the British merchants of England and made them impatient to participate in such profitable commerce.
- Two English ventures, “The Company of Merchants Adventures” (founded in 1551 and became the Muscovy Company in 1555) and the “English East India Company” (informally known as John Company, established in 1600), were desperately attempting to find routes to East Indies (Asia) and the spice trade.
- Two individuals, Ralph Fitch and Jan Huyghens van Linschoten, also played a critical role in the events leading up to the Battle of Swally.
- The Portuguese guarded their new-found routes to Asia very well. In July 1583, a British merchant, Ralph Fitch, was arrested for spying at Ormuz (near the modern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas). He was on a voyage from Syria to the Indian Ocean on his ship. Ralph was presented before the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa, where he was placed under arrest. He was released on the surety provided by Jesuit priests but escaped from Goa and wandered around India for several years. He returned to England in 1591 and became a valuable advisor to the East India Company.
- Jan Huyghens van Linschoten was a Dutch Protestant traveller and historian who served as the Secretary of the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa between 1583 and 1588. He returned to Holland in 1592. He published a book, “Itinerari” in 1596 (later published as an English edition as “Discours of Voyages into Y East & West Indies“), which, for the first time in Europe, graphically displayed detailed maps of voyages to the East Indies, particularly India.
- During his stay in Goa, Jan Huyghens meticulously copied the top-secret charts page by page. Even more crucially, Jan Huyghens provided nautical data like currents, deeps, islands and sandbanks, along with coastal depictions to guide the way, which was vital for safe navigation. His publications were also responsible for the “Dutch East India Company” (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) establishment in 1602 to unify Dutch efforts at trade with Asia.
East India Company (EIC)
- A group of prominent merchants and explorers met in 1599 to discuss a potential East Indies venture. Under the auspices of a group of merchants known as the Merchant Adventures, an English Association (or a company to trade with the East) was set up in 1600. This Company was known as the English East India Company. It was formed to trade in the Indian Ocean region, initially with the East Indies (the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia) and later with East Asia.
- On 31 December 1600, the Queen of England, Elizabeth I, granted a royal charter and the exclusive privilege to the English East India Company to trade in the East. The Queen granted her charter to their corporation named “Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies“.
- On 13 February 1601, the first voyage of the East India Company (EIC) departed. Sir James Lancaster commanded the first East India Company voyage in 1601 aboard the ‘Red Dragon‘ ship. The East India Company used this ship for at least five expeditions to the East Indies. Red Dragon was the first British ship that came to India. The other four ships in the first voyage were the Hector, Susan, Gift, and Ascension. Although the first voyage started in 1601, this fleet did not reach the Surat port of Gujarat, India.
- During the first voyage, the Company’s first factory was set up at Bantam on the island of Java in Indonesia and another factory at Moluccas (Spice Islands). They returned to England in 1603 to learn of Queen Elizabeth’s death. But, Sir James Lancaster was knighted by the new king of England, James I, on account of the voyage’s success. In March 1604, Sir Henry Middleton commanded the second voyage of the East India Company.
- On 12 March 1607, Red Dragon, along with Consent and Hector, were ordered to travel to Java to maintain trading relationships and to establish new relationships with India and Aden. General William Keeling had command of this third voyage and abroad ‘Red Dragon’ as his flagship, along with Sir William Hawkins, commander of the ‘Hector’ and David Middleton in command of the ‘Consent’.
Sir William Hawkins
- The initial voyages of the English East India Company were not necessarily to India. Each expedition was a venture in itself, separately funded by the issuance of subscription stock.
- Sir William Hawkins led the voyage of the English East India Company to India and sailed into the Surat port in Gujarat, India, on 24 August 1608. He was a representative of the English East India Company, notable for being the commander of the ship ‘Hector’ (Hector was the first Company ship to arrive at Surat in India on 24 August 1608). Hawkins brought a personal letter from King of England James I to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, requesting permission to do business in India and seeking trade concessions. The British decided to open a factory (trading post) at Surat on the west coast of India in 1608. Surat was the principal port for the Mughals and was then situated at the mouth of river Tapti.
- Sir William Hawkins travelled to Agra to negotiate consent for a factory from Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1609. The Portuguese authorities did their best to prevent Hawkins from reaching the Mughal court but did not succeed. Emperor Jahangir accepted the gifts Hawkins brought for him and gave Hawkins a favourable reception in 1609. As Hawkins knew the Turki language well, he conversed with the emperor in that language without the aid of an interpreter. Pleased with Hawkins, Jahangir granted trading facilities to the British.
- The grant of trading facilities to the British offended the Portuguese. But, after negotiation, a truce was established between the Mughal Emperor and the Portuguese. The Portuguese stopped the British ships from entering the port of Surat. Hawkins left Agra in November 1611 and returned to England. The British were not satisfied with this concession. The mission to establish a factory in Surat did not succeed due to opposition from the Portuguese. However, the British started trading at Masulipatnam on the southeastern coast of India and established their trade settlement (temporary factory) in Masulipatnam in 1611.
Course of Battle of Swally
- The tenth voyage of the English East India Company was set out from Gravesend (England) on 1 February 1612. This voyage was led by Captain Thomas Best aboard the Red Dragon ship, which reached Surat on 5 September 1612.
- On 13 September 1612, a squadron of 16 Portuguese barks (sailboats) sailed into Surat. On 22 September 1612, Captain Thomas Best sent a representative to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir for permission to trade and settle a factory at Surat. If refused, he planned to quit the country, which may have been partly because King James I extended the Company’s charter in 1609 on the basis that it would be cancelled if no profitable ventures were concluded within three years.
- On 30 September 1612, Captain Thomas Best received the news that two of his men, William Chambers and Mr Canning, were arrested while on shore. Fearing the worst, Captain Best detained a ship belonging to the Governor of Gujarat and offered to release it in exchange for his men.
- On 10 October 1612, Captain Thomas Best and his ships sailed to Suvali, a small town near Surat. Between 17 and 21 October 1612, amidst negotiations, he obtained a treaty with the Governor allowing trading privileges, subject to ratification by the Mughal Emperor. A skirmish took place between the two navies on 29 October 1612 without much damage to either side.
- On 30 October 1612, Captain Best in Red Dragon sailed through the four Portuguese ships, during which three of them ran aground. The Portuguese managed to get the three ships refloated. On the night of 30 October 1612, in an attempt to set the British ships alight, the Portuguese sent a bark (a type of sailing vessel) towards them as a fire ship. But the British watch was alert, and the bark was sunk by cannon fire with the loss of eight lives.
- A standoff remained until 5 December 1612, when Captain Thomas Best sailed for the port of Diu. Captain Thomas defeated the Portuguese in this Battle of Swally in the sea off Surat. Emperor Jahangir was sufficiently impressed after learning about the British success in the battle against the Portuguese. Afterwards, he was more favourable towards the British than the Portuguese.
- After the British victory in the Battle of Swally, Mughal Emperor Jahangir issued a ‘Farman’ and granted permission to the British in early 1613 to establish a factory at Surat under Thomas Aldworth. Captain Thomas Best then continued to Ceylon on 18 January 1613 and then onwards to Sumatra before returning to England around April 1614 without returning to India.
- On 6 January 1613, Captain Thomas Best received a letter from the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, ratifying the treaty, presented by the Governor of Gujarat.
- On 16 January 1613, Captain Best ordered one of his men, Anthony Starkey, to leave for England via land, carrying letters of their success.
- In 1615, Sir Thomas Roe came as an ambassador of King of England James I to the court of Mughal Emperor Jahangir at Agra, staying there till February 1619. Thomas Roe arrived at the port of Surat in September 1615. Though he was unsuccessful in concluding a commercial treaty with the Mughal Emperor, he was able to secure several privileges, including permission to set up factories at Agra, Ahmedabad and Broach.
- By 1623, the British East India Company established factories at Surat, Broach, Masulipatnam, Ahmedabad, and Agra.